1902 Encyclopedia > India > Wild Animals

(Part 6)


Wild Animals of India

Mammals.—First among the wild animals of India must be mentioned the lion (Felis leo), which is known to have been not uncommon within historical times is Hindustán Proper and Punjab. At present, the lion is supposed to be confined to the sandy deserts of Guzerat. A peculiar variety is there found, marked by the absence of a mane; but whether this variety deserves to be classed as a distinct species naturalists are not yet determined. The former extent of the lion’s range, or at least the degree to which its presence impressed the imagination, may be inferred from the common personal names, Sinh or Sing, Sher, and Hyder, which all signify "lion." The characteristic beast of prey in India is the tiger (F. tigris), which is found in every part of the country from the slopes of the Himálayas to the Sundarban swamps. Sir Joseph Fayrer, the highest living authority on this subject, believes that 12 feet is the maximum length of the tiger, when measured from nose to tip of tail immediately after death. The advance of cultivation, even more than the incessant attacks of sportsmen, has gradually caused the tiger to become a rare animal in large tracts of country ;but it is scarcely probable that he will ever be exterminated from India. The malarious tarái fringing the Himaláyas, the uninhabitable swamps of the Gangetic delta, and the side jungles of the central plateau, are at present the chief home of the tiger. His favourite food appears, to be deer, antelope, and wild hog. When these abound he will disregard domestic cattle. Indeed, the natives are disposed to consider him as in some sort their protector, as he saves their crops from destruction by the wild animals on which he feeds. But when once he develops a taste for human blood, then the slaughter he works becomes truly formidable. The confirmed man-eater, which is generally an old beast, disabled from overtaking his usul prey, seems to accumulate his tale of victims in sheer cruelty rather than for food. A single tiger is known to have killed 108 people in the course of three years. Another killed an average of about 80 persons per annum. A third caused thirteen villages to be abanoned, and 250 square miles of land to be thrown out of cultivation. A fourth, so late as 1869, killed 127 people, and stopped a public road for many weeks, until the opportune arrival of an English sportsman, who at last killed him. Such cases are, of course, exceptional, and generally refer to a period past, but they explain and justify the superstitious awe with which the tiger is regarded by the natives. The favourite mode of shooting the tiger is from the back of elephants, or from elevated platforms (macháns) of boughs in the jungle. In Central India they are shot on foot. In Assam they are sometimes speared from boats, and in the Himálayas they are said to be ensnared by bird-lime. Rewards are given by Government to native shikáris for the heads of tigers. Varying in time and place according to the need. In 1877, 819 persons and 16,137 cattle were reported to have been killed by tigers ; on the other side of the account, 1579 tigers were reported slain, and £3777 was paid in rewards. The leopard or panther (F. pardus) is far more common than the tiger in all parts of India, and at least equally destructive to life and property. The greatest length of the leopard is about 7 feet 6 inches. A black variety, as beautiful as it is rare, is sometimes found in the extreme south of the peninsula, and also in Java. The cheetah or hunting leopard (Gueparda jubata must be carefully distinguished from the leopard proper. This animal appear to be a native only of the Deccan, where it is trained for hunting the antelope. In some respects it approaches the dog more nearly than the cat tribe. Its limbs are long, its hair rough, and its claws blunt and only partially retractile. The speed with which it bounds upon its prey, when loosed from the cart, exceeds the swiftness of any other mammal. If it misses its first attack, it scarcely ever attempts to follow, but returns to its master. Among other species of the family Felidae found in India may be mentioned the ounce or snow leopard (F. uncia), the clouded tiger (F. macroscelis), the marbled tiger cat (F. marmorata), the jungle cat (F.chaus) and the common viverrine cat (F. viverrina).

Wolves (Canis lupus) abound throughout the open country, but are rare in the wooded districts. Their favourite prey is sheep, but they are also said to run down antelopes and hares, or rather catch them by lying in ambush. Instances of their attacking man are not uncommon. In 1827 upwards of thirty children were carried off by wolves in a single parganá ; and the story of Romulus and Remus has had it counterpart in India within recent times. The Indian wolf has a dingy reddish-white fur, some of the hairs being tripped with black. By some naturalists it is regarded as a distinct species, under the name of Canis pallipes. Three distinct varieties, the white, the red, and the black wolf, are found in the Tibetan Himálayas. The Indian fox (Vulpes bengalensis) is comparatively rare, but the jackal (C. aureus) abounds everywhere, making night hideous by its never-to-be-forgotten yells. The jackal, and not the fox, is usually the animal hunted by the packs of hounds occasionally kept by Europeans. The wild dog or double (C. dhola) is found in all the wilder jungles of India, including Assam and British Burmah. Its characteristic is that it hunts in packs, sometimes containing thirty dogs, and dogs has put up any animal, whether deer or tiger, that animal’s doom is sealed. They do not leave if for days, and finally bring it to bay, or run it down exhausted. These wild dogs have sometimes been half domesticated ,and trained to hunt for the use of man. A peculiar variety of wild dog exists in the Karen hills of Burmah, thus described from a specimen in confinement. It was black and white, as hairy as a skyeterrier, and as large as a medium-sized spaniel. It had an invariable habit of digging a hole inn the ground, into which it crawled backwards, remaining there all day with only its nose and ferrety eyes visible. Among other dogs of India are the pariah, which is merely a mongrel, run wild and half starved ; the poligar dog, an immense creature peculiar to the south ; the grey-hound, used for coursing ; and the mastiff of Tibet and Bhután. The striped hyaena (Hyaena striata) is common, being found wherever the wolf is absent. Like the wolf, it is very destructive both to the flocks and to children.

Of bears, the common black or sloth bear (Ursus labiatus) is common throughout India wherever rocky hills and forests occur. It is distinguished by a white horse-shoe mark on its breast. Its food consists of ants, honey, and fruit. When disturbed it will attack man, and it is a dangerous antagonist, for it always strikes at the face. The Himálayan or Tibetan sun bear (U. tibetanus) is found along the north, from the Punjab to Assam. During found the summer it remains high up in the mountains, near the limit of snow, but in the winter it descends to 5000 feet and even lower. Its congener, the Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), is found in British Burmah, where also there is a smaller species (H. euryspilus), and a very large animal reported to be as big as the American grizzly.

The elephant (Elephas indicus) is found in many parts of India, though not in the north-west. Contrary to what might be anticipated from its size and from the habits of an inhabitant, not of the plains, but of the hills; and even on the hills it is usually found among the higher ridges and plateaus, and not in the valleys. From the peninsula of India the elephant has been gradually exterminated, being only found now in the primaeval forests of Coorg, Mysore, and Travancore, and in the tributary states of Orissa. It still exists inconsiderable number along the tarái or submontane fringe of the Himálayas. The main source of supply at the present time is the confused mass of hills which forms the north-east boundary of British India, from Assam to Burmah. Two varieties are there distinguished, the gunda or tusker, and the makna or hine, which has no tusks. The reports of the height of the elephant, like those of its intelligence, seen to be exaggerated. The maximum is probably 12 feet. If hunted, the elephant must be attacked on foot, and the sport is therefore dangerous, especially as the animal has but few parts vulnerable to a bullet. The regular mode of catching elephants is by means of a kheda or gigantic stockade, into which a wild herd is driven, then starved into submission, and tamed by animals already domesticated. The practice of capturing them in pitfalls is discouraged as cruel and wasteful. Elephants now form a Government monopoly everywhere in India. The shooting of them is prohibited, except when they become dangerous to man or destructive to the crops; and the right of capturing them is only leased out upon conditions. A special law, under the title of "The Elephants Preservation Act" (No. VI. of 1879), regulates this licensing system. Whoever kills, captures, or injures an elephant, or attempts to do so, without a licence, is punishable by a fine of 500 rupees for the first offence ;and a similar fine, together with six months’ imprisonment, for a second offence. In the year 1877-78 a total of two hundred and sixty-four elephants were captured in the province of Assam, yielding to Government a revenue of £3600. In the season of 1873-74 no less than fifty-three were captured at one time by Mr Sanderson, the superintendent of the Khelda Department in Mysore, who has made a special study of the Indian elephant, as Sir S. Baker has of the same animal in Ceylon. Though the supply is decreasing, elephants continue to be in great demand. Their chief use is in the timber trade, for Government transport. They are also bought up by native chiefs at high prices for purposes of ostentation. Of the rhinoceros, four distinct varieties are enumerated, two with a single and two with a double horn. The most familiar is the Rhinoceros unicornis, commonly found in the Brahmaputra valley and in the Sundarbans. It has but one horn, and is covered with massive of naked skin. It sometimes attains a height of 6 feet ; its horn , which is much prized by the natives for medicinal purposes, seldom exceeds 14 inches in length. It frequents swampy, shady spots, and wallows in mud like a pig. The inveterate antipathy of the rhinoceros to the elephant seems to be mythical. The Javan rhinoceros (R. sondaicus) is found in the same localities. It also has but one horn, and mainly differs from the foregoing in being smaller, and having less prominent "shields." The Sumatran rhinoceros (R. sumatrensis) is found from Chittagong southwards through Burmah. It has two horns and a bristly coat. The hairy-eared rhinoceros (R. lasiotis) is only known from a specimen captured at Chittagong.

The wild hog (Sus scrofa, var. indica is well known as affording the most exciting sport in the world—"pig-sticking." It frequents cultivated situations, and is the most mischievous enemy of the villager. A rare animal, called the pigmy hog (Porculia salviania), exists in the taraí of Nepal and Sikkim, and has been shot in Assam. Its height is only 10 inches, and its weight does not exceed 12lb.

The wild ass (Asinus onager) is confined to the sandy deserts of Sind and Kachhch (Cutch), where, from its speed and timidity, it is almost unapproachable.

Many wild species of the sheep and goat tribe are to be found in the Himálayan ranges. The Ovis ammon and O. poli are Tibetan rather than Indian species. The urial and the shapu are kindred species of wild sheep, found respectively in Ladákh and the Suláimán range. The former comes down to 2000 feet above the sea, the latter is never seen at altitudes lower than 12,000 feet. The barhal, or blue wild sheep, and the markhur and tahr (both wild goats) also inhabit the Himálays. A variety of the ibex is also found there, as well as in the highest ranges of southern India. The sarau (Nemorhaedus rubida), allied to the chamois, has a wide range in the mountains of the north from the Himálayas to Assam and Burmah.

The antelope tribe is represented by comparatively few species, as compared with the great number peculiar to Africa. The antelope proper (Antilope bezoartica), the "black buck" of sportsmen, is very generally distributed. Its special habitat is salt plains, as on the coast-line of Guzerat and Orissa, where herds of fifty does may be seen, accompanied by a single buck. The doe is of a light fawn colour, and had no horns. The colour of the buck is a deep brown-black above, sharply marked off from the white of the belly. His spiral horns, twisted for three or four turns like a corkscrew, often reach the length of 30 inches. The flesh is dry and unsavoury, but is permitted meat for Hindus, even of the Bráhman caste. The nílgai or blue cow (Portax picta0 is also widely distributed, but specially abounds in Hindustan Proper and Guzerat. As with the antelope, the male alone has the dark blue colour. The nílgai is held peculiarly sacred by Hindus, from its fancied kinship to the cow, and on this account its destructive inroads upon the crops are tolerated. The four-horned antelope (Tetraceros quadricornis) and the gazelle (Gazella bennetti) are also found in India. The chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni) is confined to the Himálayan plateaus.

The king of the deer tribe is the sámbhar or gerau (Rusa aristotelis), erroneously called "elk" by sportsmen. It is found on the forest-clad hills in all parts of the country. It is of a deep-brown colour, with hair on its neck almost like a mane ; and it stands nearly 5 feet high, with spreading antlers nearly 3 feet in length. Next in size is the swamp deer or bara-singha, signifying "twelve points" (Rucervus duvaucelli), which is common in Lower Bengal and Assam. The chitál or spotted deer (Axis maculata0 is generally admitted to be the most beautiful inhabitant of the Indian jungles. Other species include the hog deer (Cervus porcinus), the barking deer or muntjac (Cervulus vaginalis), and the mouse deer (Meminna indica). The musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) is confined to Tibet.

The ox tribe is represented in India by some of its noblest speices. The gaur (Bibos gaurus), the "bison" of sportsmen, is found in all the hill jungles of the country, in the Western Gháts, in Central India, in Assam, and in British Burmah. This annual sometimes attains the height of 20 hands (close on 7 feet), measuring from the hump above the shoulder. Its short curved horns and skull are enormously massive. Its colour is dark chestnut, or coffee-brown. From the difficult nature of its habitat, and from the ferocity with which it charges an enemy, the pursuit of the bison is no less dangerous and no less exciting than that of the tiger or the elephant. Akin to the gaur, though nor identical, are the gayál or mithan (B. frontalis), confined to the hills of the north-east frontier, where it is domesticated sacrificial purposes by the aboriginal tribes, and the tsine or banting (B. sondaicus), found in Burmah. The wild buffalo (Bubalus arni) differs from the tame buffalo only in being larger and more fierce. The finest specimen come from Assam and Burmah. The horns of the bull are thicker than those of the cow, but the horns of the cow are larger. A head has been known to measure 13 feet 6 inches in circumference, and 6 feet 6 inches between the tips. The gratest height is 6 feet. The colour is slaty black ; the hide is immensely thick, with scanty hairs. Alone perhaps of all wild animals in India, the buffalo will charge unprovoked. Even tame buffaloes seems to have an inveterate dislike to Europeans.

The rat and mouse family is only too numerous. Conspicuous in it is the loathsome bandicoot (Must bandicota), which sometimes measures 2 feet in length, including its tail, and weighs 3 lb. It burrows under houses, and is very destructive to plants, fruit, and even poultry. More interesting is the tree rat (M. arboreus), a native of Bengal, about 7 inches long, which makes its nest in cocoa-nut palms and bamboos. The voles or field mice (genus Arvicola) occasionally multiply so exceedingly as to diminish th eout-term of the local harvest, and to require special measures to be organized for their suppression.

Birds.—The ornithology of India, though it is not considered so rich in specimen of gorgeous and variegated plumage as that of other tropical regions, contains many splendid and curious varieties, Some are clothed in nature’s gay attire, others distinguished by strength, size and fierceness. The parrot tribe is the most remarkable for beauty. So various are the species that we cannot even enumerate them, and must refer for details to the scientific works on the subject._ Among birds or prey, four vultures are found, including the common scaverngers (Gyps indicus and G. bengalensis). The eagles comprise many species, but not to surpass the golden eagle of Europe. Of falcons, there are the peregrine (F. peregrinus), the shain (F. peregrinator), and the lagar (F.jugger), which are all trained by the natives for hawking ;of hawks, the shikara (Astur badius), the sparrow hawk (Accipiter nisus), and the crested goshwk (Astur trivirgatus). Kingfishers of various kinds, and herons are sought for their plumage. No bird is more popular with natives thanthe maina (Acridotheres tristis), a member of the starling family, which lives contentedly in a cage, and can be taught to pronounce the name of Krishna. Water-fowl are especially numerous. Of gamebirds, the floriken (Sypheotides auritus) is valued as much for its rarity as for the delicacy of its flesh. Snipe (Gallinago scolopacina) abound at certain seasons, in such numbers that one gun has been known to make a bag of eighty brace in a day. Pigions, partridges, quail, plover, duck, teal, sheldrake, widgeon—all of many varieties—complete the list of all small game. The red jungle fowl (Gallus ferruginesis), supposed to be the ancestor of our own poultry, is not good eating; and the same may be said of the peacock (Pavo cristatus), except when young. The pheasant not occur in India Proper, though a white variety is found in Burmah.

Reptiles.—The serpent tribe in India is numerous ; they swarm in all the gardens, and intrude into the dwellings of the inhabitants, especially in the rainy season. Most are comparatively harmless, but the bite of others is speedily fatal._ The cobra di capello (Naga tripudians)—the name given to it by the Portuguesse, from the appearance of a hood which it produces by the expanded skin about the neck—is the most dreaded. It seldom exceeds 3 to 4 feet in length, and is about an inch and a quarter thick, with a small head, covered on the forepart with large smooth scales ;it is of a pale brown colour above, and the belly is of a bluish-white tinged with pale brown or yellow. The Russelian snake (Daboia russellii), about 4 feet in length, is of a pale yellowish-brown, beautifully variegated with large oval spots of deep brown, with a white edging. Its bite is extremely fatal. Itinerant showmen carry about these serpents, and cause them to assume a dancing motion for the amusement of the spectators. They also give out that they render snakes harmless by the use of charms or music, —in reality it is by extracting the venomous fangs. But, judging from the frequent accidents which occur, they sometimes dispense with this precaution. All the salt-water snakes in India are poisonous, while the freshwater forms are wholly innocuous. Sir J. Fayrer has demonstrated that there is no cure for the bite of the cobra, if the snake is fullgrown, and if its poison fang is full and is not interfered with by clothing. The most hopeful remedy in all cases of snake bite is the injection of ammonia. The loss of life from this cause in India is painful to contemplate, nor does any means of diminishing the evil seem feasible. It is impossible to exterminate poisonous snakes altogether, even in England. In India the impossibility is yet more evident, from the greater number of the snakes, the character of the country, and the scruples of the people. Something, however, is being effected by the offer of rewards. In 1887 a total of 16,777 persons, are reported to have killed by snakes, as compared with only 819 by tigers. In the same year, rewards to the amount of £811 were given for the destruction of 127,295 snakes.

The other reptiles include two varieties of crocodile (C. porosus and C. biporcatus) and the gavial (Gavialis gangeticus). These are more ugly in appearance than destructive to human life. Scorpions also abound.

Fishes.—All the waters of India—the sea, the rivers, and the tanks—swarm with a great variety of fishes, which are caught in every conceivable way, furnish a considerable proportion of the food of the poorer classes. They are eaten fresh, or a nearly fresh as may be, for the art of curing them is not generally practised, owing to the exigencies of the salt monopoly. In Burmah the favourite relish of nga-pi is prepared from fish ; and at Goálandá, at the junction of the Brahmaputra with the Ganges, an important station has recently been established for salting fish is bond. The indiscriminate slaughter of fry, and the obstacles opposed by irrigation dams to breeding fish, are said to be causing a sensible diminution in the supply in certain rivers. Measures of conservancy have been suggested, but their execution would be almost impracticable. Among Indian fishes, the Cyprinidae or carp family and the Siluridae or cat-fishes are best represented. From the angler’s point of view, by far the finest fish is the mahsir, found in all hill streams, whether in Assam, the Punjab, or the South. One has been caught weighing 60lb, which play for more than seven hours. Though called the salmon of India, the mahsir is really a species of barbel. The most recent authority on Indian fishes and their economic aspects is Dr Francis Day.

In this connexion may be mentioned the susu or Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica), which is often erroneously called a porpoise. Both the structure and habits of this animal are very singular. It measures from 6 to 12 feet in length, and in colour is sooty-black. Its head is globular, with a long, narrow, spoon-snout. Its eyes are rudimentary, like those of the mole ; and its ear-orifices are no bigger than pin-holes. Its dentition, also, is altogether abnormal. It frequents the Ganges and Indus from their mouths right up to their tributaries within the hills. A specimen has been taken at least 1000 miles above Calcutta. Ordinary its movements are slow, for it wallows in the muddy bed of the river, and but rarely comes to the surface to blow. The susu belong to the order Cetacea ; and inquires have recently been directed to the point whether its blubber might not be utilized in commerce.

Insects.—The insect tribes in India may be truly said to be innumerable ; nor has anything like a complete classification been given of them in the most scientific treatises. The heat and the rains give incredible activity to noxious or troublesome insects, and to others of a more showy class, whose large wings surpass in brilliancy the most splendid colours of art. Stinging musquitoes are innumerable, and moths ants of the most destructive kind, as well as others equally noxious and disagreeable. Amongst those with are useful are the bee, the silk-worm, and the insect that produces lac. Clouds of locusts occasionally appear, which leave no trace of green behind them, and give the country over which they pass the appearance of a desert. Dr Buchanan saw a mass of these insects in his journey from Madras to the Mysore territory, about 3 miles in length, like a long narrow red cloud near the horizon, and making a noise somewhat resembling that of a cataract. Their size was about that of man’s finger, and their colour, reddish. They are swept north by the wind till they srike upon the outer ranges of the Himálayas.


FOOTNOTE (p. 743)

(1) See especially Jerdon and Gould.

(2) See Sir J. Fayrer’s Thanatophidia

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